"All My Life" is not your typical romance blockbuster. Although co-stars Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. acted in hits such as "Happy Death Day" and "Crazy Rich Asians," respectively, the two decided to try an unglamorous take on unconditional love during a time when we needed it most.
Directed by Marc Meyers, All My Life is a drama about a young couple, Jennifer Carter (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon Chau (Harry Shum Jr.), choosing monogamy despite imminent tragedy.
After enjoying an early screening of the film, I spoke with Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. during a newspaper roundtable interview. The two Zoomed in and answered inquiries with an appropriate air of solemnity, given the emotional nature of the film.
The tale begins just like most other rom coms: boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy proposes to girl, etc. However, as the couple plans their wedding, the film takes a heartbreaking turn when Solomon receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. Nevertheless, Jennifer resolves to marry him regardless of the shortened time they have together. With financial and emotional assistance from friends and strangers, Solomon and Jennifer manage to tie the knot.
Coming out during an age rife with illness and grief, this film makes an opportune statement about the necessity of sharing in suffering, said Rothe.
"We are so much stronger when we band together and lead with love for other people - especially in this year of heartache and isolation, the film is very timely," Rothe said. "I hope that people can find solace in it and have compassion for themselves and other people."
The "Glee" actor echoed his counterpart's personal connection to the hardship.
"This year we stopped taking little things for granted, like just hugging someone," Shum Jr. said. "After finishing the film, it was really emotional and took me a bit to get out of that headspace."
One extraordinary aspect of "All My Life" is that the film is based on the true story of an ordinary Canadian couple. The widowed real-life Carter was keenly involved in the filmmaking process. In a letter released with the "All My Life" trailer, Carter said it was a privilege to share her and Chau's story with the world. As the real-life inspiration for the story, Carter shared her stories, pictures, and videos with the stars of the movie but permitted the actors to make the narrative their own.
"Jen gave us freedom as performers to put a lot of ourselves into it," Shum Jr. said.
At first glance, "All My Life" seems to join the ranks of a type of film Hollywood Reporter calls, "a cancer-romancer," like "The Fault in Our Stars" and "A Walk to Remember." But, the stars argued, the story of Solomon and Jennifer brings a new nuance to the trope.
"Our film has a healthy balance of different perspectives, from how the caretaker feels and how the person with cancer feels," Shum Jr. said. "A lot of times films just focus on cancer, but I think that's what makes us unique from the others."
Another distinctive attribute of this story is its BIPOC representation — in this case, Asian-American portrayal — into the cultural landscape of film. A recent study by USC showed Asian-Americans representing only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood. But Shum Jr. said he views this role as a steady step toward equity.
"I'm honored but also, I'd be lying if I didn't say it's about damn time," Shum Jr. said. "It's important we start learning about the history of why we have to celebrate moving forward as a human race. It's important for us to keep telling different stories of faces that have been erased. I hope that it continues more for more people and they can see themselves on screen as characters that are complex. I'm grateful to be in this position and I hope it doesn't stop here."
Just like "All My Life's" representation, the story is complex, contended Rothe.
""All My Life" explores illness in a more three dimensional and layered way than other stories," Rothe said. "While it's understandable for a lot of films that deal with cancer to feel depressing and bleak, our movie has a message of hope."
The unique positivity in peril is due, in part, to the actors' natural chemistry, which was harnessed by improvisation on set, according to Rothe.
"Our director encouraged us to let scenes breathe and to find the improvisation for little moments that weren't in the script that we could add inside jokes and ways to lift each other out of the moments that got particularly heavy," Rothe said.
At the end of the film, Jennifer expresses that the average life span is 27,375 days, but it's only the days where something special happens that we remember. She and Solomon attempt to squeeze a lifetime's worth of memories into the days they have together. The greatest rebellion is choosing to hope when life does not give you a reason to, said Rothe on "All My Life's" optimism.
"Hopefully in 2021, we can all travel and go to parties and see all of our loved ones and do all of the things that normally you think of when you think of living life to its fullest but I think that you can live your life to its fullest in some small, intimate ways as well," Rothe said.
The film is available in select theaters and on-demand on December 23.